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Cuban Taxi Drivers Seek Alternative Fuels

Vintage cars adapted to run on cheaper stuff than petrol.
By Carlos Rodríguez, Odelín Alfonso Torna
  • A particularly well-kept example of the 1950s American cars used as taxis in Cuba. (Photo: Matthias Schack/Flickr)
    A particularly well-kept example of the 1950s American cars used as taxis in Cuba. (Photo: Matthias Schack/Flickr)

Cuba is famous for its “almendrónes”, the much-modified classic cars that are used as taxis and are a common sight in the capital Havana.

But high petrol prices are leading cab drivers to find ever-more ingenious ways of adapting their vehicles to run on cheaper types of fuel.

Every time Francisco, a 58-year-old retired army officer, wants to drive his 1952 Chevrolet, he has to start the engine and warm it up for five minutes. When it reaches the right temperature, he shuts off the fuel line feeding it petrol, and switches to kerosene.

Kerosene, or paraffin, is sold for heating and lighting, and Francisco acknowledges that the substance is doing no good to his car's big engine.

“But it’s easy on the wallet,” he said.

On the black market, kerosene sells at 7.50 pesos, 35 US cents, a litre. Normal engine fuels cost far more. The state fuel retailer CUPET sells petrol at between 25 and 35 pesos a litre depending on octane grade, and diesel at 29 pesos a litre.

“I can’t run my business if I buy fuel from CUPET,” taxi driver Armando López, 30, said. The cheapest costs me [25 pesos] and they almost never have any, so I have to buy the standard-grade petrol [29 pesos a litre].”

Petrol is cheaper on the black market.

“Black market petrol costs me 20 pesos, López said.

Most of the “almendrónes” date from before 1961, when the United States embargo ended sales of American cars to Communist Cuba.

But these days only the chassis and bodywork are usually original. Some have engines stripped out of Soviet- or Czech-made cars supplied when Cuba was in still within Moscow’s orbit, while others are borrowed from European makes.

“Many of them have Mercedes Benz, Fiat or other engines in them,” taxi driver Ángel Giménez said, noting that the replacement engines were less thirsty than the originals.

Some drivers modify their engines to use liquefied petroleum gas, LPG. A standard gas cylinder costing 100 pesos on the black market should give the same mileage as 20 litres of petrol, offering a saving of 300 pesos even on the cheapest petrol.

As with kerosene, the conversion still requires the engine to be started up with a shot of petrol into the adapted carburettor.

Mechanic Rubén Martínez, 44, said that while all fuels carried risks, he had never heard of any accidents occurring with LPG conversions.

“I don’t know about now, but the vehicles that were used to distribute [canister] gas to people in the 1990s ran on [LPG] gas rather than petrol or diesel. We’re talking about an economical fuel here. At this point, I’m unaware of any accident involving [LPG] gas in a car,” Martínez said.

For smaller vehicles, petrol motors from pumps or chainsaws offer a cheap form of power. They have been fitted to small cars, motorcycles and the “rikimbili”, a makeshift powered bicycle or tricycle. Rikimbilis are illegal and riders risk having them confiscated by the police.

The same small motors are also used to power the rafts used by Cubans attempting to make the sea crossing to Florida.

Petrol prices in Cuba rose steeply after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and socialist-bloc aid and subsidies came to an end.

A black-market petrol trader who asked to remain anonymous said he sourced his supplies from government employees, including the interior ministry which controls the police.

He acknowledged that it was a risky business, saying he knew of someone doing two years in prison for trading in fuel.

According to the independent legal information group CubaLex, selling fuel illegally counts as misappropriating state property and carries a sentence of three to eight years.

Communist Party member Ricardo said the reason people stole from the state was that wages were so low.

“If Cubans had economic opportunities, a lot of illegality would be avoided,” he said.

Carlos Rodríguez is the pseudonym of a journalist in Cuba. Odelín Alfonso Torna is an independent journalist reporting from Havana.

This story was first published on IWPR’s website.